Lip-smacking provocation and saucy humour abounds in Paul Verhoeven’s rip-roaring nunsploitation romp.
One of the most hotly-anticipated films at Cannes in 2021 is a two-time holdover; Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta was initially mooted for a 2019 premiere at the festival, but was pushed back a year due to the director’s recovery from hip surgery. It was then nudged back once more when the 2020 edition was cancelled due to Covid-19. Suffice to say excitement had reached a fever pitch on the afternoon of the premiere, with the oppressive July heat on the Cote d’Azure all the more appropriate to frame a tale of lust, lies and religious fervour based on the life of 17th century lesbian nun Benedetta Carlini.
This is the second screenwriting collaboration between Verhoeven and David Birke and it recalls the salacious life of the blessed Benedetta (Virginie Efira) who first appears as a precocious child who claims the Virgin Mary speaks to her. Her doting parents purchase a place for Benedetta in the Pescia convent run by the shrewd, money-minded Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) and it’s here that Benedetta comes into her own, experiencing visions of Jesus and devoting herself to a divine power. That is, until the impish Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) seeks sanctuary at the convent from her abusive father and brother; Benedetta’s parents pay her way into the church, and a clandestine mutual attraction rapidly develops.
But that’s not all. Benedetta experiences an increase in her religious communications, and suggestion grows that she has been blessed by Jesus himself. Or is it a clever ruse to gain power within the convent, which the Abbess herself describes as “the game”?
If you scan the Wikipedia page for ‘nunspoiltation’, the name Benedetta Carlini appears, and what could be more titillating than a lesbian Bride of Jesus who claimed to be in commune with the holy father? Verhoeven has long been interested in religious storytelling, to the extent he published a book about the life of Jesus Christ in 2010, and here he applies his provocative sensibilities to the juiciest of subjects. The result is incendiary – a lusty romp concerning repressed desire, the seedy underbelly of organised religion and whether it really matters if communion is administered at a church or from between a lover’s thighs.
Unabashedly explicit and mischievous, Benedetta succeeds largely due to its committed and magnetic cast. Efira’s volatile turn in the title role is one for the ages, presenting us with a woman we can’t take our eyes off, never quite deciding if she’s a false prophet or blessed messenger. Meanwhile Charlotte Rampling delivers her best performance in quite some time as the icy Abbess, while the church itself is presented as a tool for financial and political dealing rather than a sanctury to commune with God.
The film’s satirical slant, combined with the chemistry between Efira and Patakia, create fireworks, and while similar tales of same-sex love under trying historical circumstances remain predominantly wrought and po-faced, Benedetta has a real sense of humour; its script is absurd and often very funny, with a handful of bodily function gags thrown in for good measure.
So yes, much will be made of the ‘lesbian nun sex scenes’, but there’s so much more at play: cheerful disavowing of oppressive dogma; and cheeky suggestions about why the city of Pescia was able to avoid the plague. This is a cinematic spectacle that’s sexy and grotesque in a way films just don’t seem to dare anymore, evoking Ken Russell’s The Devils and, of course, Verhoeven’s much-maligned (but eventually reclaimed) Showgirls.
Verhoeven’s film seems certain to incur the wrath of the Catholic church due to its blasphemous details (too gloriously juicy to reveal), but for those with little-to-no faith in a higher power, Benedetta is a delicious, visceral provocation, one that revels in the temptation to sin and sin again.
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Published 10 Jul 2021
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